Wednesday, September 15, 2010
Good and Evil are BFFs.
An Ice Road Truckers morality play. Alex (left) and Hugh (right.)
THE BELL RINGS. I quit watching Deadliest Catch when it descended into bathos after the death of Captain Phil. Sooner or later, I'm sure, Ice Road Truckers will follow the same path. But I might be inclined to cut them a little more slack. Reason? This season in particular has been almost obsessively about character, revealing subtleties that take multiple episodes to lay bare. The constant risks of driving the Dalton Road in Alaska -- Fairbanks to Prudhoe Bay -- are the given, exploitable obviously for the dangers every driver faces, as well as the economic pressure to score the big bucks. But it's actually more Alone than Endurance. In the end it's not really man against nature or man against man. It's man against himself. You know. Truer somehow. More elemental.
Who can't sympathize with Lisa, trying to earn enough money to buy back her lost Tennessee walking horse? Everything's against her. She's not physically strong enough to smack the ice off her frozen brakes. And whenever she screws up, the CB gossip has her in its crosshairs within moments. The girlie who shouldn't be here at all. The male drivers are like antibodies rejecting a virus. But she's brave. Full-on brave. Yes, she has something to prove, but she knows she can only prove it by being good enough, not by whining, crying, or demanding dispensations for her sex. Bottom line? She's a trucker, not a diva.
But there is a diva on the scene. Shockingly, it's the central casting hero of the Dalton Road, Jack. He's talented, intelligent, incredibly knowledgeable, and the undisputed king of the heavy loads. Yet he also has a disconcerting tendency to leave people waiting. He's perpetually late to work, even when the stakes are high. When first we saw it, it seemed a clever response to an obnoxious personality (Hugh -- more about him later), but then we began to observe that it's chronic. A fault of ego. The Dalton Road has a way of exposing faults.
Which brings me to the centerpiece of the show and this post. A pair of Canadians who have been spotlighted since the beginning of the series. Alex and Hugh. Best buds and arch-rivals. Hugh always beats Alex in the race for the most loads in the ice truck season, wherever it is. When the show was filmed in Canada, they were just the two most colorful characters. Now that they're in Alaska, they're the outsiders, the outlanders who have to earn the respect of the veterans of this most dangerous of all roads.
It's been fascinating to watch. Almost a parable. Hugh is leading in the race for loads, as always, but not by much, as always. But he is making enemies. For him it's exclusively about the money and his own ego.He never stops to help a trucker in trouble. He chisels his way past all the rules, starting so early in the morning, for example, that he rarely has to undergo the bureaucratic rigors of the weigh station. If a load isn't securely tightened by the loaders, it's not his problem. Damaged cargo is the company's problem, not his, even if he has foreseen the possibility. He continually cuts corners on safety, eschewing chains as "jewelry" and taking chances that could endanger not only his life but others.
Alex, on the other hand, has a dozen children and is a committed Catholic with a crucifix hanging from his rearview mirror. Perhaps it's overstatement to call him the saint of the Dalton Road, but perhaps not, too. We've seen him stop for a driver in a ditch Hugh merely laughed at, and stay for hours helping to dig out the truck and the driver's job. He was the last man to leave the scene, and given what we know of his cardiac history (bad), he was risking his life to do so. The driver he helped was, typically, less than fully grateful. They'd had words in the past, and all he was willing to acknowledge was that they were now "even." Right. You resented him for some fancied sleight and he saved your job. Even.
In another episode we saw Alex stop at the scene of an accident and stay for hours trying to save the life of a man who was bleeding dangerously from a savage gash in his face and throat. This against a deadline for the load he was carrying. When he finally left, he recited the Lord's Prayer in full and somehow managed to meet his deadline by a handful of minutes. But not before his friend Hugh had stolen the load Alex had waiting for him on the return trip to Fairbanks. Hugh called on the CB to crow, and Alex said he wanted Hugh to make his money, only maybe not at his expense.
Two things about all this. Ice Road Truckers is almost pure capitalism. Risk versus reward, with the spoils going to those who perform the best in a pitiless life-and-death market environment. But capitalism is not an anti-moral system. Hugh is making enemies by caring for nothing but money. Alex is making friends by, well, being a good man. He just is. And you can see that the people he interacts with see it too. Eventually, what is called "luck" will begin to turn his way. Further, even in this money-for-freight dogfight, character matters. Capitalism makes extraordinary demands on that character, perhaps, but it is not inimical to those who are good and brave and altruistic.
Second. And perhaps most interestingly. Alex and Hugh really are friends. Which spins us into the realm of theology. When Alex had a serious cardiac event a season or two ago, Hugh was genuinely grieved, despite all his bluster to the contrary. It's clear that on the Dalton Road -- was there ever a better metaphor for life itself? -- Hugh is a kind of demon. But he also needs Alex and very probably loves him for the same goodness we admire.
Sharpshooters at Christianity continually ask why, if God is good, there is still evil. I'm thinking evil is the proof that good is good and not just a checkbox. If it isn't a choice, it's nothing at all. But if we look at the good versus evil showdown in terms of need, it's not so much the case that good needs evil as that evil needs good. Hugh gleefully announces that "good guys finish last" after he's stolen Alex's return load. He defines himself by being Alex's polar opposite. (He's actually nicknamed the 'Polar Bear' in the show.) But you're struck by the fact that when Alex retires or dies, Hugh will probably lose his vitality, his very reason for living. He'll be reduced to the empty, money-grubbing pisshead he really is. All his stature comes from "beating" Alex.
And, truthfully, he'll never actually accomplish that. What he needs most of all is Alex's forgiveness. And every time he accepts it, he is diminished.
Here endeth the lesson. Understand it? Then we got us a CONVOY.